In the world of skincare, there are thousands of different ingredients and formulations. From misunderstood glycerin to trending charcoal to plumping peptides, it truly is a "world"—once you start researching which ingredients to seek and which ones to avoid, you start to feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Perhaps one of the most prevalent—and controversial—skincare ingredients out there is silicone. For many, when they see the word at the top of an ingredient list, they call to mind something unnatural, chemical, and maybe even harmful—at least, that seems to be the consensus after taking a quick poll among friends and fellow beauty buffs (very scientific, we know). But if it's that bad, why is it found in so many skincare products and brands? We turned to the experts to learn more about this popular skincare ingredient and debunk the myths behind it.
Meet the Expert
Keep scrolling for our complete guide to silicone in skincare.
Type of Ingredient: Hydrator
Main Benefits: Smooths skin, locks in moisture, and heals wounds.
Who Should Use It: "Anyone can use silicone-containing products unless you have a known allergy to them," says Lamb.
How often can you use it: Two to three times a day.
Works well with: Serums and moisturizers
Don’t use with: Comedogenic oils or any ingredient that may clog pores.
What is Silicone?
It's an ingredient that carries many implications, but what is silicone exactly? According to Svendsen, "Silicone is naturally derived from polymers, compounds made up of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms sometimes or often mixed with carbon or hydrogen or often both. It is thought of as low toxicity and resistant to heat." Its occlusive properties, versatility, and accessibility (both in terms of price tag and availability) may have contributed to its pervasiveness in skincare, she adds. And compared to other synthetics, silicone doesn't require added chemicals to keep its molecules stable. "Since it has no 'active' properties (such as an antioxidant or glycolic acid), silicone is thought of as stable and does not react with other ingredients or break down when exposed to air or light," Svendsen notes.
Benefits of Silicone for Skin
- Improves texture: "Silicone gives an instant boost to the skin when applied topically," Svendsen explains. "It makes the surface of the skin smooth and gives a 'hydrated' effect," she adds. This may help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Locks in moisture: "Silicone is mainly thought of and used as an occlusive seal," says Svendsen. As such, it creates a barrier on the skin that prevents transepidermal water loss. Vargas adds, "It is water-binding, so it can stay even when the skin gets wet and is an effective delivery system for other ingredients."
- Heals wounds and reduces scarring: Studies show that silicone gels may be effective in wound healing and scar reduction, making them a favored treatment among medical experts.
- Blendable: When combined with other skincare ingredients, silicone improves the consistency of the product. "It is a hydrating agent and puts a lot of slip into a product to allow it to be more spreadable," explains Vargas. This makes application a breeze.
Side Effects of Silicone
Given silicone's skincare perks, we have to wonder why it gets such a bad rap. According to Svendsen, silicone may exacerbate rosacea, acne, sensitive skin, or milia. She recommends that anyone who experiences any of these skin issues should consider removing silicone from their product lineup. Svendsen also swears that by eliminating silicone from her routine, her skin (and hair) has never been better. "My teenage daughter and I have the clearest skin and softest hair because we limit, if not have eliminated altogether, silicone from our products. One of my priorities as an esthetician is to analyze every detail of a patient's regimen and be able to recognize the signs of sensitivity."
Thanks to silicone's hydrophobic properties, you may want to consider double cleansing if you use a silicone-based skincare product.
Although Svendsen's anecdotal evidence suggests that silicone may contribute to a flare-up, according to Lamb, "There is no reason to avoid silicones unless you have a known allergy to them." Vargas adds that silicone isn't inherently harmful to the skin. "Silicone is considered safe by watchdog websites such as Paula's Choice because it's been proven so. It has so many effective properties." Still, Vargas admits that she limits her exposure to it. "I don't love using a lot of products with silicone in them because I do feel it can be clogging. However, for me as an esthetician, I do acknowledge the science," she says. In fact, clogged pores are not necessarily a direct result of using silicone but of not completely washing it off.
How to Use It
In skincare, silicone is most often found in moisturizers and creams. It combines well with other ingredients so look for antioxidants that will benefit your skin type and concern. "Dimethicone is a wonderful addition to a moisturizer because it traps moisture into the skin and prevents water evaporation across the skin surface," says Lamb. "Jergens Lavender Triple Butter Blend ($6) is a perfect selection to provide luxurious long-lasting moisture with the help of dimethicone ingredients," she adds. More often than not, you'll want to apply your silicone after your serum or as the last step in your skincare routine since it will "seal in" ingredients. "You can use them as often as you would like/when you apply moisturizers two to three times per day," Lamb tells us.
But in case you're still wary of using silicone, there are plenty of non-silicone skincare products on the market. Svendsen recommends TNS Recovery Complex ($230), a potent anti-wrinkle serum from SkinMedica. "Serums work well because their molecules are half the size of that in creams and lotions and absorb well and cleanly into the skin." She also loves the brand's Lytera Pigment Correcting Serum ($154) which is formulated with licorice root and kojic acid and addresses pigment issues, sun damage, melasma, and dull skin. "It is one of my absolute all-time top sellers in my almost 15 years as a skincare expert," admits Svendsen.
Is silicone toxic?
Silicone used in cosmetics, like dimethicone, has not been found to be toxic. Yet, while not necessarily bad for skin, it can cause blemishes and exacerbate existing skin issues if a proper cleansing routine is not followed.
Can silicone clog pores and/or cause acne?
No, silicone does not directly cause clogged pores or acne. However, because silicone is occlusive, if you do not wash it off properly, this can lead to build-up on the skin which can clog pores and contribute to acne.
How can you tell if your skin care product is formulated with silicone as an ingredient?
It's not often that you'll simply see the word "silicone" listed in the fine print. Instead, you should look for words ending in "ane" or "one," which according to Svendsen, usually refer to a silicone derivative.
Bleasdale B, Finnegan S, Murray K, Kelly S, Percival SL. The use of silicone adhesives for scar reduction. Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2015;4(7):422-430.
Swift T, Westgate G, Van Onselen J, Lee S. Developments in silicone technology for use in stoma care. Br J Nurs. 2020;29(6):S6-S15.
Johnson W, Heldreth B, Bergfeld WF, et al. Safety assessment of dimethiconol and its esters and reaction products as used in cosmetics. Int J Toxicol. 2017;36(3_suppl):31S-50S.